Changing music formats for listening

I grew up in the 1970s in Surrey and used to shop at ‘Threshold Records” which was owned by The Moody Blues. Back then they stocked the store with an amazing selection of music, including the original Jimi Hendrix albums on Track Records, the Yes albums and all manner of 70s psychedelic music. I remember buying “Layla and assorted love songs” on a sunny day and I still listen to this music decades on. An album cost two pounds fifteen pence on average until Elton John priced a new album at 2 pounds 45 pence.

There had been attempts up until this point to introduce a new tape music format and in 1971, the Advent Corporation introduced their Model 201 tape deck that combined Dolby type B noise reduction and chromium(IV) oxide (CrO2) tape. This meant that music was portable for the first time, but the sound quality was not great. For those of us recording music in the 1980s the 4 track cassette recorder emerged and then later the Adat which I personally detested with a vengeance.

Phillips produced the DCC as a digital alternative to the cassette and Sony went one further in creating the mini disc. DCC never really took off but I quite like the mini disc, especially when they introduced high capacity discs. The world changed in 1982 with the creation of the Compact Disk or CD and everyone I know had copies of “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits. No more tape hiss, scratches or warped vinyl, but many swore that digital sounded harsh compared to vinyl. In 1999 Sony and Phillips created Super Audio Discs or SACDs. By 2007 the general consensus was that this medium had not really taken off. As well as the hard to find general SACDs (these will not play in a conventional CD player) there are the more obscure by excellent Japanese SACDs. These have lavish packaging and the discs are all emerald green. I have never seen these outside Japan.

In the 2001 mp3s began to become popular with the introduction of the I Pod. This is a compressed format and is “OK” for listening on the move but not the best sound, commenting –

“Digital music files download quickly, but suffer a significant loss in quality. Bitrates for most tracks on iTunes average 256kbps AAC audio encoding, which is drastically inferior to the quality of recorded source material in almost every case” Neil Young

Other lesser known formats that never took off include DVD audio that appeared in 2000 and never took off. I confess to loving high fidelity where you can hear the full recording rather than what is essentially a filtered version. FLAC audio has appeared in recent times and now its possible to hear high resolution or HD files which can be truly superb. Of course any listening experience is only as good as the original recording and HD FLAC shows how good or bad the original mastering was. If you are not already exhausted by now, there is also the DSD as a file format .

On August 28, 2013, the Acoustic Sounds label launched, which sells mainstream albums from major record labels that were produced with Direct Stream Digital or PCM audio formats.On September 4, 2013, Acoustic Sounds announced an agreement with Sony Music Entertainment to provide the company’s new digital download service with albums that have been produced or remastered in Direct Stream Digital format.

I have music on all these formats, but prefer high resolution HD flac and DSD files on my home system and portable Sony HD media player. There can be a massive difference in terms of listening experiences, but great music mostly sounds great regardless of what you play it back on. I miss the artwork that came with original vinyl albums, but love the sound of high resolution files which require a good playback system with a digital audio converter.

Vinyl is now making a come back and digital formats remain massively popular. With the closing of HMV, I suspect CDs will continue to decline. According to a new mid-year report released by RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) this week, CD sales are falling at an extraordinary rate, with revenue decreasing 41.5% in the first 6 months of 2018, compared to the same period the previous year

Often people will say “X format sounds best” but so much depends on what kind of system you choose to listen back on and what sounds good to your own ears.